Led by Montana native Colin Meloy, the Decemberists craft theatrical, hyper-literate pop songs that draw heavily from late-'60s British folk acts like Fairport Convention and Pentangle and the early-'80s college rock grandeur of the Waterboys and R.E.M. The band's initial lineup also included drummer Ezra Holbrook, bassist Nate Query, keyboardist/accordionist Jenny Conlee, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. Frontman Meloy had previously devoted some time to an alternative country group before breaking off to pursue his craft as a singer/songwriter in the city of Portland, a move that eventually led to the Decemberists' formation. Drawing influence from his degree in creative writing, he began fashioning a hybrid of literate lyrics and wide-ranging pop music, touching upon everything from Sandy Denny to Morrissey in the process.
Before Hush Records released the band's debut album in 2002, the Decemberists baited their initial fans with a five-track EP. Their full-length debut, Castaways and Cutouts, was re-released that same year on the Kill Rock Stars label, and the band began to accumulate a serious fan base. After adding organist and keyboardist Rachel Blumberg to the group, in 2003 the Decemberists released Her Majesty, another fine collection of theatrical indie pop with pastoral sensibilities that further cemented their growing reputation. One year later, a five-part epic EP entitled The Tain — based on the eighth century Irish poem of the same name — appeared, followed by the full-length Picaresque in 2005.